Taking a chance: Why we need to embrace diversity at Williams

As a current sophomore, I wasn’t on campus when the original Stand With Us movement occurred. Last year, when I heard about Claiming Williams day, my original reaction was, “So what?” I hadn’t personally encountered any real classist, sexist, racist, homophobic, etc. issues on campus. As for diversity? I was one of four white kids in my entry.

Being a curious frosh, though, I decided to take advantage of my day off and explore what Claiming Williams had to offer. Having the opportunity to really listen to what both outsiders and my classmates had to say was an excellent chance to re-evaluate my own Williams experiences.

When the chance came around, I decided to join the Claiming Williams Steering Committee for 2010 to help build off of the momentum from 2009’s dialogues and help tailor Claiming Williams to our campus more specifically. It’s been a long few months of preparation, but I think our hard work is paying off: We’ve got an excellent line-up of speakers, community forums, films and discussions, and all of the programming is very specifically planned with Williams College in mind.

People keep asking me: “Why do we need Claiming Williams?” I understand their point of view – I shared it less than a year ago. But in response, I’ll now encourage people to open their eyes, talk to their peers and interact with staff and faculty with whom they might not otherwise engage. Claiming Williams is about stories, both the uplifting and the dark, from all reaches of our community. It’s about getting those stories heard, about having a voice, about making this place your own. The process of “claiming Williams” is different for everyone, but we can all benefit from tackling the difficult questions that underscore daily life here.

For those who don’t know, a history lesson: In 2008, students wrote a racial slur on a freshman’s whiteboard. Responding to this disturbance and many other hateful, intolerant actions that had taken place on the campus, members of the Williams community formed the Stand With Us campaign. The students, faculty and staff who participated in this group demanded a change in Williams culture. Stand With Us provided an immediate visible response to the incident, which led to a 500-person strong rally that drew an institutional response to the problems of homophobia, racism, classism, sexism and ableism that continue to exist on campus. The latter led to the first Claiming Williams Day, which drew over 1000 community members.

This year, Claiming Williams Day has undergone a bit of a makeover. The day will present a number of community forums and workshops and two keynotes in order to invite the community to acknowledge and understand the uncomfortable reality that not all students, staff and faculty can equally “claim” Williams. By challenging the effects of the College’s history of inequalities that are based on privileges of class, race, gender, sexuality and religion, we will provoke individual, institutional and cultural change.

A major part of the purpose of Claiming Williams is bringing the community together. Claiming Williams 2009 drew faculty, staff and students into a conversation on issues relating to privilege and its impacts on Williams. Claiming Williams 2010 aims to build upon the discussions of last year and to provoke more discussion.

So if you’re a skeptic, rather than simply sleeping in on your day off from classes, come by and see what we’re all about. Go see the keynote speakers, watch the movies, share in the food and generally engage. If nothing else, Claiming Williams is an opportunity that not every college student gets: it’s a chance for introspection … with 1000 of your closest friends.

If you need a more concrete reason for “Why Claiming Williams?” simply look to our (all too recent) history – incidents like the one that led to Stand With Us and the recent homophobic graffiti are unfortunate reminders that Williams isn’t perfect, and it certainly isn’t free from problems like classism, racism, sexism, homophobia and religious intolerance. The program aims to address not only incidents like these, but also the underlying issues which lead to them.

It’s important to remember also that Claiming Williams isn’t just Feb. 4, 2010 – Claiming Williams has also been supporting and co-sponsoring a number of events throughout the year and will continue to do so. Last year, some momentum was lost after the original day. This year, let us hope to capture the energy and run with it.

Claiming Williams is more than just a day without classes – it’s an opportunity to engender positive change in a community where not everything is as it should be. Above all, it should be a difficult and incredibly rewarding day of confrontation, introspection and community building.